Jose Raul Capablanca (19 November 1888 - 8 March 1942) was the legendary chess master from Cuba. Dubbed the Human Chess Machine, he was perhaps the most naturally talented chess player ever. He lost only 2 games from 1914-24!
He won the World Championship in 1921 beating Emanuel Lasker 4-0 with 10 draws. Capablanca claimed that he had never opened a book on openings. He was born gifted with a natural understanding of chess fundamentals. His intuitive appreciation of the nature and possibilities of a position were on a par with those of Paul Morphy.
He was at his strongest during those 10 years, playing with apparent simplicity. He was successful because his positional awareness was superior to that of his rivals. His strategy was deeper. His intentions were harder to detect. Often it would be far to late when his opponents would realize what was happening. You can enter Capablanca games and stories.
Jose Raul Capablanca was born in Havana in 1888, the son of an officer in the Spanish army. He learned to play chess by watching his father play. The first glimpse of his extraordinary talent occurred at the tender age of four when watching one of these games. He laughed at one of his dad's moves which he clearly deemed to be less than adequate.
His father no doubt was less than impressed to have his prowess on the chess board questioned by a four year old. He then played his young son to put the upstart in his place. Capa beat the old man twice. He began to play at the Havana Chess Club from the age of eight. Then at the age of thirteen he beat the Cuban champion Juan Corzo in an informal match.
Capa went to New York in 1905 to study Engineering and Chemistry at the Columbia University. He was more interested in studying chess though and dropped out of university after just one semester. The chess masters down at the Manhattan Chess Club received his full attention from that moment on.
Capablanca was renowned for moving very quickly in his games. When he was young he would average at under a minute for each move. He could glance at a position and within moments find the best move. Before 1930 his oversights were far and few between. He could play with astonishing accuracy.
As a result he was particularly suited to blitz chess and simultaneous exhibitions. He toured the United States playing simuls in the major cities. He played 602 games in 27 cities scoring a 96.4% success rate. Maroczy's 88% and US Champion Frank Marshall's 86% did not compare.
These stats were enough to earn Capa a match against Marshall in 1909. Marshall was a great player in his own right. Capa blew him out of the water however on a score of 8-1 with 14 draws. It is telling that 9 of those 14 draws came in the last 10 games of the match. Clearly Marshall had realized he was outmatched and started playing for draws. This match put Capa firmly on the map as a major player.
Frank Marshall was invited to a major international tournament in San Sebastian, Spain. All of the world heavyweights were invited to compete. San Sebastian 1911 would turn out to be one of the strongest five tournaments held up to that time. In the end everyone turned up except for Lasker.
For his part Marshall agreed to come but insisted that Capablanca also be invited. Capablanca was unknown in Europe but Marshall put forward the case that he was far to good to be ignored. In the end the organizers relented and admitted him.
Some of the European players were a bit put out that this non-entity was allowed to participate. You needed at the minimum, two 3rd place finishes in a master's tournament. This fellow had never even played in one! Bernstein and Nimzowich formally objected to his inclusion. Capa promptly responded by routing both on the way to winning the tournament. Only Pilsbury had previously won a major at the first attempt.
Capa was no longer a secret and along with Rubinstein and Nimzowich he was now among the main challengers to Lasker. In that same year he challenged Lasker for the title. Little did he know that events would delay his chance for another decade.
Lasker provisionally accepted the challenge but set down numerous conditions for the match to take place. Capablanca object to several of these. He said the match stakes were punitive and Lasker's insistence that the challenger win by two points to take the title was unfair. These and several other points meant that the match fell through.
Another event that would slow down Capa's ascent to the pinnacle would be the outbreak of World War I. Activity in chess competition was extremely limited during the war years. Their first meeting took place at the St. Petersburg tournament in 1914. Capa seemed on course to breeze to overall victory after a great start. But he lost his game against Lasker and the following game against Tarrasch which allowed Lasker to steal it by half a point.
After the war Lasker's passion for competitive chess was on the wane. Germany had lost the war and he had lost all of his wealth. He was weary. Capablanca on the other hand was on the way up and hungry for the title. By 1920 the Cubans had raised the hefty stakes to back Capa's challenge.
The two signed an agreement to play a World Championship match in Havana, Cuba in 1921. Lasker resigned the title and declared Capablanca the champion a year before the match was played. Capablanca acknowledged this in writing. The match would be played over 30 games.
In the end the match did not go the distance. Lasker threw in the towel after just 14 games. Capa lead 4-0 with 10 draws and Lasker did not want to fight on. At the age of 32, Jose Raul Capablanca was the Champion of the World.
Jose Raul Capablanca continued to perform well after becoming World Champion. He was very strong in tournaments during the 20's, winning London in 1922 and finishing second in New York in 1924 where he lost only his second chess game in 8 years against Richard Reti.
He was still setting records in simuls. He played 102 games in one event in 1922, winning 101 and drawing 1. Like the previous World Champions before him, he found that conditions for challenges was a contentious issue. Capablanca published a set of rules and regulations to govern the way World Championship matches would be conducted. All of the top players agreed to the rules and signed the agreement.
In 1927 Alexander Alekhine was the first challenger to raise the money for a title match. The champion was very confident that Alekhine would not be a serious problem in Argentina. Maybe he got to complacent but he underestimated his opponent. Alekhine ripped the title away from him, beating him 6-3 with 25 draws..
Capablanca spent the following years trying to get a rematch against Alekhine. But Alekhine avoided a rematch using all the tried and tested means. He set the stakes for challenging extremely high and put many conditions in place. Capablanca played in many tournaments, finishing first six times between 1928 and 1931. He also managed three second place finishes in that time. But he could not manage to agree terms with Alekhine and relations soured between the two as a result.
Capa retired from top level chess in 1931 when he felt that he was being frozen out of a chance to win back the title. He made a comeback at the end of the decade. He won in Paris in 1938 and picked up a gold medal in the Chess Olympiad that year. While there he again tried to organize a title shot with Alekhine but was unsuccessful.
Towards the end of his life he suffered from high blood pressure and mild strokes. On the 7th of March 1942, Capa was watching a skittles game with friends at the Manhattan Chess Club when he suddenly collapsed. He was rushed to the Mount Sinai Hospital, where he died the following morning aged just 52. He was survived by his wife and two children.
Capablanca as a chess player was very much in the mould of Morphy. He played a simple, logical style based on sound positional approach. He had a clear understanding of how to get his pieces working together in harmony, increasing their combined power.
Capa's greatest games are personified by quick development with a minimum of fuss. They contain apparently quiet moves that lay the foundations for plans that would come to fruition much later in the game. He is one of the earliest players to play openings with the endgame in mind.
He also wrote some chess books. The most notable of these, Chess Fundamentals, was described by Mikhail Botvinnik as the best chess book around.
The problem with biographies is you must concentrate on breadth and can never go as deep as you would like. You can mention the major events in someone's life but can't allow yourself to indulge in intricate detail. Jose Raul Capablanca began to show his genius from as early as four years of age. There must be countless anecdotes and interesting accounts of different episodes and incidents throughout his time. Many of these stories would have originated from among the great many people that he would have met in different parts of the world. Some of these accounts give us an insight into what kind of man he was, what made him tick. Or if you prefer you could annotate one of his games, reflecting his genius over the board. Do you know of an interesting story or game from the life of Jose Raul Capablanca? Share Your Jose Raul Capablanca Anecdotes or Games With Us.
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Who influenced Jose Raul Capablanca? Well he was quoted with the following on Paul Morphy: The greatest stylist was Morphy. He did not look for complicated combinations, but he also did not avoid them, which really is the correct way of playing. His main strength lay not in his combinative gift, but in his positional play and general style. Morphy gained most of his wins by playing directly and simply, and it is this simple and logical method that constitutes the true brilliance of his play, if it is considered from the viewpoint of the great masters.
He also had the following to say on Morphy: I play in the style of Morphy, they say, and if it is true that the goddess of fortune has endowed me with his talent, the result (of the match with Emanuel Lasker) will not be in doubt. The magnificent American master had the most extraordinary brain that anybody has ever had for chess. Technique, strategy, tactics, knowledge which is inconceivable for us; all that was possessed by Morphy fifty-four years ago.
Next we will turn to the man to took Capa's World Championship from him, the Russian Alexander Alekhine.
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